Pat Venditte made a sensational season debut on Saturday. He pitched 3 perfect innings, striking out four. You’re probably already familiar with the switch-pitcher, so I won’t rehash it here. Venditte has questionable MLB talent as either a right-hander or left-hander, but has a career 11.6 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, and .3 HR/9 in 103 minor league innings, and has started to look like more than just a novelty act. He started the season at High-A Tampa instead of Double-A, which led many (including myself) to question how much faith the Yankees have in the 25 year-old.
Major League teams are very clear to their minor league affiliates: some players are prospective major leaguers, and some players are not. They treat the two very differently: better spots in the batting order, guaranteed playing time at a position regardless of performance, etc. Minor league managers are always torn between the two competing goals of developing players and winning ballgames.
Usually, you can tell who the Yankees consider a prospect and who they do not. The Yankees do something very specific with their prospect relief pitchers: they stretch them out and put them on a set rotation. That means that they will pitch every 3rd day for 2-3 innings. They’ve done it with David Robertson, Mark Melancon, Wilkins De La Rosa, J.B. Cox, Anthony Claggett, and Michael Dunn. No others on a real schedule come to mind. Those guys are far and away the seven most-valued Yankee relief prospects of the last 5 years. Guys like Jon Hovis, Eric Wordekemper, Josh Schmidt, etc have stuck around the Yankee farm system, but haven’t been given the playing time of the true prospects. Venditte was getting playing time similar to the latter group up until the end of last year, but the Yankees started stretching him out more following his promotion to High-A in 2009.
What happened on Saturday? Pet Venditte pitched a fairly unnecessary 3 innings, following Adam Warren’s 6-inning start. A well-rested Tampa bullpen had plenty of guys who could have used work to pitch a third inning, but the Yankees pushed Venditte back out, who was dominating and presumably going to go until he hit his pitch count.
So, I’m ready to make a call: if Venditte pitches 2+ innings Tuesday, 3 days after his April 10th appearance, then I think the Yankees officially consider his future very, very bright. The team is usually the best judge a player’s potential. If the Yankees think that Venditte is a MLB-quality reliever, then I’m ready to rate Venditte as a top-20 prospect on the strength of his ridiculous stats in the minors.
One final note: I’ve written a lot about how I love the Yankee relief regimen. I think that the Yankees correctly decided that a series of one inning stints similar to what a pitcher should be prepared for in the majors will fail to give a relief pitcher enough playing time to develop. A lot of teams pitch their minor league prospects for 40-50 innings per year, which is ridiculous. David Robertson pitched 84 innings in 2007, and 83 (which was stunted by time riding the bench the majors) in 2008. Mark Melancon pitched 95 innings in 2008. I bet you Venditte, having the benefit of two different sets of muscles to tire out, can top either of them if the Yankees want him to.